An emerging new sense of Canadian identity

Published November 18, 2014

This country’s First Nations people provide all of us with a foundation to help define what it means to be Canadian today. I have only gradually come to appreciate this, and invite you to join me in my discovery.

During the autumn season, members of our congregation have been reading Richard Wagamese’s recent book, Medicine Walk. In addition, we have been working through John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country, and especially his section on “A Métis Nation.”

The first is a novel, a story in Wagamese’s Oji-Cree tradition, with some profound spiritual insights for the rest of us. The second is by one of Canada’s most fertile thinkers. It proposes that, “we are a people of Aboriginal inspiration, organized around a concept of peace, fairness and good government.”

Wagamese writes of a spiritual journey or “medicine walk” taken by a young native man who is in a quest to understand his ancestry. It is replete with redemptive characters and a strong message about the power of forgiveness.

In an indigenous manner, the author demonstrates his grasp of both native and non-native, Traditional and Christian spiritual ways.

Saul argues the need to replace the commonly understood term “order,” a word commonly associated with Canada, with what he believes are more apt and natural—peace, “fairness” and good government. This description grounds us in our aboriginal roots and distinguishes us from Europeans and Americans. He hastens to say that this does not necessarily make us better, only different and true to ourselves.

Many of us, I believe, are aboriginal wannabes—but what does that mean? We beat on drums, wear decorative native jewelry, decorate our living and working spaces with dream-catchers and medicine wheels. We adorn our museums, airports and embassies with magnificent coastal sculptures.

Some of these attractions smack of kitsch. But beneath the superficiality, for some of us at least, there is a genuine spiritual quest. We struggle as Canadians to define something from our common, formative heritage that has never been well understood. Indeed, it has been ignored or resisted. Yet it is very much there, incubating in the womb of our self-understanding.

I believe that a moment of new awareness is beginning to confront us. This perception has had to move through earlier stages of bicultural and multicultural definitions to a contemporary and more realistic “nation of minorities.” This identity with a fairness underpinning is offered us from our First Nations. Other countries like Australia and New Zealand have their indigenous groundings as well, but each nation is unique and that is what makes this whole endeavour so intriguing.

Both Wagamese and Saul are opening new windows of self-understanding and integrative imagery for us to consider. We are confronted with another way of seeing ourselves as Canadians. Each author is currently releasing new books that will hopefully expand on these ideas.  I, for one, sense a new paradigm opening to me, and want to journey with them.

Wayne A. Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and helps to co-ordinate adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church in Calgary. 


  • Wayne Holst

    Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and, for 15 years, he has coordinated adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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